MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Brad Froslee was installed as pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church at a special Sunday service attended by dozens of his fellow pastors, as well as Froslee’s proud parents and grandmother, all devoted lifelong Lutherans.

But the Minneapolis Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officially lists Calvary’s ministry as vacant. That’s because, sitting with Froslee’s family at his installation ceremony in February, was his male partner of 5½ years – living proof that Froslee has flouted the ELCA’s prohibition on non-celibate gay pastors.

“What I heard from the members of the church’s call committee was that from the first meeting, they knew I was the one meant to be their pastor,” said Froslee, 35. “I’ve always felt called to this process, and that in a sense God has a guiding hand in this. So I always had a sense it would work out.”

On the margins

But to make it work, Froslee and the church and synod leaders are operating on what church council member Brian Aust called “the margins of the ELCA.” It’s an arrangement that could be formalized this August, when leaders of the ELCA – the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination with 4.7 million members – meet for their biannual convention in Minneapolis.

An ELCA task force has recommended a policy that would let congregations decide whether to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as their clergy. The resolution has been criticized from both directions, with liberals saying it doesn’t go far enough and conservatives saying it conflicts with Scripture.

“This isn’t about sex,” said the Rev. Mark Chavez of Landisville, Pa., the director of Lutheran CORE, a coalition of conservative groups in the ELCA. “It’s finally about the authority of God’s word.”

But the approach envisioned by the task force is already in practice at Calvary Lutheran, a modest 70-year-old brown brick church in a racially diverse neighborhood four miles south of downtown Minneapolis. The 120-member congregation is a mix of young families and single people, middle-aged couples and older established members, and is mostly white despite the surrounding neighborhood.

“In the City for Good,” reads a banner on the front of the church, a symbol of Calvary’s mission of social justice and outreach to distressed communities. When it came time last year to replace the married couple who served as co-pastors the last 13 years, Calvary’s lay leaders wanted someone who would help realize that mission.

Drawn to the church

Froslee grew up in the tiny western Minnesota town of Vining, a region still heavily populated by descendants of the German and Scandinavian settlers who helped establish a Lutheran presence in the United States. His family had a long tradition of involvement in their church, and Froslee grew up on a steady diet of Sunday school and church camp.

A high school overachiever, Froslee kept his love of the church into college. But he planned for law school after realizing from a pretty early age “that I was different and didn’t really fit the mold when it came to sexuality,” he said.

In college at St. Olaf in Northfield, a theology professor told Froslee his work had uncommon insight and asked why he wasn’t considering the ministry.

“I hemmed and hawed for quite a while, and then finally I said I don’t think there’s a place for me in the church because I’m gay,” Froslee said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Brad, that’s a cop-out.’ And that I think really became kind of a turning point for me in terms of my journey.”

Froslee came out to his family while in college, and sharpened his scriptural understanding at Harvard Divinity School. He says he never concealed his sexuality while going through the ordination process, and also made it known his desire to someday find a lifelong partner.

Before joining Calvary, Froslee served as pastor at a Presbyterian church in Minnetonka through a pact between the two denominations. He’s also been an activist on issues of homosexuality and Christianity, co-founding a summer camp for gay, Christian youth. And even after meeting his partner, he stayed on the ELCA’s roster of pastors eligible to serve in Lutheran congregations – which got his name in front of the Calvary committee looking for the new pastor.

‘The best person’

Aust, an attorney who chaired that committee, said Calvary wasn’t looking for trouble. “Our simple motivation was find the best person, gay or straight. It wasn’t about labels,” he said.

The Minneapolis Synod of the ELCA signed off on the arrangement, but lists Calvary’s ministry as vacant. “We viewed it as a decision for the congregation to make,” said Minneapolis Synod Bishop Craig Johnson.

Froslee and church council members said there are few real ramifications to the vacant designation, save that Froslee can’t vote at synod assemblies. But from a symbolic standpoint, they said, it’s not ideal.

“It’s sort of don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Moberg, the church council president. “It’s not necessarily the way we’d like it to be.”

Not every gay pastor has been as fortunate as Froslee. In Atlanta in 2007, the Rev. Bradley Schmeling was kicked off the ELCA roster entirely after acknowledging he had a partner – a decision that helped precipitate the ELCA’s attempt to find a middle ground. Just a few miles away from Calvary at Salem Lutheran Church, the Rev. Jen Nagel, also partnered, has been kept off the ELCA roster – putting her congregation even further on the ELCA margin than Calvary.

Looking for recognition

Rev. Peter Strommen, a pastor from Prior Lake, Minn., who led the task force that proposed the policy change, said it’s an attempt to officially recognize the lack of consensus across the ELCA.

With rapid social change on gay rights even in recent weeks, including the sudden legalization of gay marriage in Vermont and Iowa, he said the Lutheran church must find a way to proceed amid strongly divergent viewpoints.

“We’ve tried to stress here that this is not a core issue of our faith,” Strommen said. “It’s important. But it doesn’t get to the level of the risen Christ and salvation.”

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